The Lincolnshire Life ‘Talk of the Town’ feature by Richard Coppin – July 2009.
It’s not every day that you have a throbbing traction engine on one side of you, the famous actor Richard Todd beside you on the other, a Battle of Britain Fly-Past roaring above your head, and Grantham Town Band playing the Dambuster’s March in your ear. This was the emotional climax to Grantham’s spectacular St. George’s day celebrations that took place in April on St. Peter’s Hill Green. I mention this because it’s a measure of the determination of Grantham to keep going during these dark days. Until recently I was Chairman of the Grantham Events Group which made possible this amazing day for the town, so I’ve seen firsthand that very British thing at work; a refusal to give in when times are tough. There is a very powerful ‘Grantham Spirit’ that mirrors its Dunkirk namesake rather well, and it’s this attitude that will see the town through in the end. The same is true of the Christmas Market, and, every June, we have the Grantham Carnival so successfully staged by Roy Wright over the last twenty-five years. Such events in the civic calendar do more than put a much-needed smile on the town’s face, they play a significant part in its economic regeneration, bringing new customers from across the county and elsewhere, as well as reinforcing that vital sense of a community squaring up to life.
Grantham, like the wider world has not escaped the pummelling effects of the global economic maelstrom. But it’s against this tide of negative energy that many of the town’s business people have shown defiance with a stoic sense of the positive. People like Ged McKnight who runs Fellows Cafe in the heart of town, also an active member of the Events Group, has recently refurbished what was once a dusty attic into a very smart function room. He believes that his business, along with many others, enables Grantham to offer what he calls a ‘New Traditionalism’; a mix of old-fashioned service on one hand, and contemporary products on the other. He sees Grantham’s ‘villagesness’ as a key factor in its attractiveness, which is apparent to Granthamians and visitors alike, even though it happens to be the biggest town in Lincolnshire. Tim Radley, who’s on the executive committee of the Grantham Business Club is another voice prepared to buck the national trend by taking risks to build and grow his financial services business, even to the point of taking over an empty property in the centre of town and offering vital employment opportunities. “The only way to progress,” he told me, “is to get off our rear ends, take the initiative, and make things happen. It’s not rocket science; it’s a blend of hard work and vision.” With Grantham’s mainstay industries like manufacturing and agriculture in decline, Tim sees this moment in the town’s history as the point where new types of revenue streams can be generated. Speaking to him one gets the opinion that he is one of the inventors of a brave new Grantham. He talks glowingly about Project Pretty, an aesthetic regeneration of the town centre; yet another initiative by the Business Club. By mid June he enthuses, the whole of Westgate and Grantham’s ancient Market Place will become beautified by an explosion of floral colour. I can see his vision coming alive in my mind’s eye as he explains what they have planned. I can’t help but go along with his analogy that in just the same way we feel more confident when we’re dressed for the part, so too will Grantham feel good when it looks good. “It’s all too easy to be swept along by a strong depressive current,” he says, “But if enough of us swim against the flow, things can be turned round, And he’s prepared to roll his sleeves up and do what he says, “Sometimes,” he says as an afterthought, “A town just needs a morale boost to rediscover its ‘Get-up-and-go’, and there has never been a more deserving time than now.”
I was by now finding all this rather uplifting, so I went to see Lia Ibbotson, Grantham’s Town Centre Manager at the offices of South Kesteven District Council. I asked her about Grantham’s future. “Expectations are high,” she said.” Growth Point designation for the town has turned the spotlight to invigorating the town centre and the potential is huge.” She went on to say that the important factor was to retain the history and character of the town centre area whilst providing better facilities to benefit both residents and visitors, like the work going on to re-vitalise the Market Place. I found myself back in the ‘New Traditionalism’ that Ged had mentioned. Lia and I talked about the business community and their role in the town’s future prosperity, and it was clear to her that a high number of independent retailers in the town centre continually demonstrated the uniqueness and entrepreneurship that the town increasingly needs. “With consumers becoming more aware of the benefits of shopping local,” she said, “these strengths should be capitalised upon to ensure Grantham continues to offer that special ‘something’”.
The last word I left to Alastair Hawken as we met over a coffee. Alastair is the Chairman of the Grantham Business Club and as a businessman himself sees Grantham well placed to realise its potential. “We’re the gateway to the rest of the country,” he says with genuine enthusiasm. “We’re on the East Coast main line; London is therefore just over an hour away. Actually this is the crossroads of the north to south A1 and the A52 going east and west. You can reach the M1 and East Midlands Airport in less than thirty minutes. Grantham is the perfect place for commerce.” I asked him about the here and now. “There is a noticeable growth in micro industries that will create a new business community”, he says, “Rather like a twenty-first century take on the old model of independent traders.” He smiles at the last remark. “You know,” he says as he finishes his coffee, “You can’t ever keep a good town down.” And in my heart I know he’s right.